Spotlight On: Tod Browning


Tod Browning
circa 1930sThroughout the history of film there have been no shortage of colorful and fascinating characters behind the camera sitting in the director’s chair. But few have been as colorful or fascinating as Tod Browning. Being the son of a professional baseball player, Browning ran away from home as a teenager and joined the circus. While travelling with various circuses and carnivals he gained experience in every aspect of this lifestyle serving as; clown, magician, contortionist, and carnival barker. He was most known for a particular trick where he would be buried alive for the entertainment of the crowds. As an adult a fateful meeting with DW Griffith created a new path in his life as Tod Browning was inspired to go into the movie business. Browing had an obsession with a strange and macabre and it reflected in his work as he pioneered what would become the American horror genre. So today we shine this edition of Spotlight on Tod Browning.

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The Unholy Three: This crime film is possibly Browning’s most critically lauded effort from the Silent Era. Paired once again with Lon Chaney, he plays a ventriloquist named Echo who is joined by his fellow sideshow performers; Hercules and Tweedledee “the Twenty Inch Man”. Vowing to become rich, the trio take on the guise of a wholesome family running a pet shop with Chaney disguising himself as the kindly grandmother of the group “Granny” O’Grady. This only serves as a cover for their murderous burglary ring which preys on the shop’s customers. Though when Hercules starts trying to steal Echo’s girlfriend their unity begins to crumble and a giant ape is brought in to subdue the strong man. By the end of the film we in the audience are left with Lon Chaney’s now famous lines “That’s all there is to life my friends….just a little laugh….just a little tear”. This film showed glimpses of what the director would deliver in his magnum opus seven years later Freaks, by drawing influence from his own experience from the sideshow and even casting performers from this world. Five years later another director would recruit Chaney to return for a remake of the Unholy Three, this time utilizing the new technology of sound.

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The Unknown: As a fugitive from the law Alonzo, concocts the perfect way to evade law enforcement by using a special harness to hide his arms and joining the circus as Alonzo the Armless. Throughout his performances he falls in love with his partner in the act Nanon.  Alonzo preys on her fear of being touched by men, especially the circus’ strong man who frequently tries to seduce her. This way he being “armless” will be the only man she is safe with. With the risk of being exposed as not only a man with arms, but also a murderer grows, Alonzo blackmails a surgeon to perform an amputation on him. Though as he recovers, he finds that Nanon has fallen for the strong man she once feared, and in a memorable scene Alonzo plots his revenge by sabotaging a stunt his romantic rival is set to perform. Not only does the Unknown give audiences another teaming of the iconic silent duo of Browning and actor Lon Chaney but also introduces audiences to a young Joan Crawford in her film debut.

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London After Midnight: This may seem like a strange entry on this list, as London After Midnight has not been seen by anyone for decades. But this is part of it’s legend as the movie has become arguably the most famous and sought after lost film of all time. At a stately manor on the outskirts of London, a prominent man dies under suspicious circumstances though his death is ultimately rules a suicide. Years later when the old mansion is explored by those looking to purchase it, they are scared off by a cadaverous woman and a terrifying man with fang-filled mouth. Soon Scotland Yard gets involved as people wonder if a vampire stalks these grounds. In an attempt to satiate all the cinephiles yearning to see this lost movie, in 2002 Turner Classic utilized existing stills and new title cards in an attempt to recreate London After Midnight. Unless someone stumbles across a currently unknown copy this may be the closest we get to seeing the film.

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Dracula: Universal was preparing to take a massive gamble. They were going into production on Dracula, which would not only be the first American film with a supernatural element but also the first horror picture made in sound. Their hopes that Lon Chaney’s stardom carrying the flick faded when the actor passed away and was replaced by the far less famous stage actor Bela Lugosi. Luckily they knew Tod Browning had the talent and artistic mindset to make Dracula what they needed it to be. Adapting the classic Bram Stoker tale, audiences were introduced to the vampire Count Dracula. Moving from his home in Transylvania, Dracula moves to England in order to find new preying grounds. With this movie being the first of its kind, the director was free to create many elements which are now forever associated with gothic horror. As we now know Dracula was a game changer in cinema and launched the beloved Universal Monsters franchise. Many claimed he came off as uninterested during the filming of Dracula, and legendary cinematographer Karl Freund had to lead the film, but Tod Browning’s unique vision is ever present in this classic. 

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Freaks: Often cited as one of the most controversial movies ever, Freaks returned Browning to the world he knew in the circus. The film puts the audience firmly into the freakshow of a circus, where he recruited real performers to fill out the cast, adding a layer of realism which moviegoers of 1932 found incredibly unnerving. Freaks feature Hans, a midget who falls in love with the trapeze artist Cleopatra, and even leaves his fiancée for her. Seeing this as a means to gain wealth, Cleopatra has no problem manipulating the affections Hans holds for her. But when her treachery is discovered, the freaks decide it is only fitting they turn her into one of them in one of the most unnerving scenes in the history of film. The use of real sideshow freaks, horrified audiences and the film was even banned in many theaters. In an attempt at damage control, several minutes of the movie were edited out, and are now tragically lost to time. While at the time, this movie dealt a massive blow to Tod Browning’s career it is now recognized as a masterpiece by both genre fans and mainstream critics.

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Mark of the Vampire: Reteaming with Bela Lugosi, Browning delved once more into the realm of vampirism with a twist. When a distinguished man is found dead in his mansion with two punctures on his neck vampires are automatically assumed to be the cause. The incredibly creepy Count Mora and his daughter Luna are assumed to be the suspected undead and an expert on the occult is brought in to deal with them and protect potential victims. Through a hypnotism-heavy investigation it is learned that Mora and Luna are not vampires, but merely actors hired by someone else to carry out the murder. Of course with Bela Lugosi playing a vampiric character and Browning behind the camera comparisons to Dracula were inevitable. But for Browning this was his talkie remake of London After Midnight. As with his previous talkies, the enforcers of the Production Code used their growing power to have several minutes of the film cut out.

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The Devil Doll: Framed for a crime he did not commit, Paul Lavond befriends a scientist while in prison and learns of his secret formula which shrinks people down to a sixth of their size. When the scientist dies during a prison break, Lavond unites with the man’s widow to use this formula for revenge.  Stalking the streets of Paris, Lavond pursues the three men who framed him and had him imprisoned. The Devil Doll is a truly fun movie, which proves to be a nice showcase for fantastic special fx of the era.